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August 12, 2009

The Simple Truths of the Gospel
by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

The Short Gospels Hold Unlimited Truths

I don’t know if you ever thought of how short the four gospels are. If you printed each one out individually, they might almost be called “booklets.” For example, in the Bible I use, the Gospel of St. Mark is only 27 pages long, while St. Matthew’s Gospel is the longest at 53 pages. But If you do a Google search of “the gospels of Jesus,” you will come up with 31,900,000 references, and, in truth, that is only a sample of what all the world’s libraries hold about the gospels.

We know the gospels were not written until some 40 to 50 years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. The good news was first preached by word of mouth, and, with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian communities spread like wild-fire. Paul wrote his pastoral and doctrinal epistles in the 40s and 50s of the Christian era. It’s truly miraculous how the word of God was revealed though human voices and words and how you and I are privileged to hear, read and speak it.

Of all the writings of the Bible, the gospels naturally hold a place of pre-eminence. At the same time, these four gospels are so simple and plain in their teaching that they can be read by anyone, of any age, and in any language or from any culture. It may require a world full of books and commentaries to expound the gospel truths, but that is because they are so rich and life giving in their meaning. It has been said that when you get down to listing the most principles of living the gospel values, you could put them on a three-by-five-inch card and still have a lot of room left over.

Three Statements of Jesus Contain the Whole Teaching

Here is an example of what I mean. We can take three statements of Jesus and basically cover the entire gospel. Each of these three commands of Jesus is so full of meaning and consequences that everything else Jesus said is in someway contained in these three. They are:

1. In Mark, Jesus was asked what the greatest of the commandment was, and we know his answer: “Love God with all your heart and love and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:29). The reason why Jesus spoke of these two commandments as really one is that there is no way of loving God more perfectly than by loving our brothers and sisters, including our enemies. Jesus even said that if we are on our way to worship God and we realize we have something against our brother or sister, God is very happy to wait until we clear up the problem with our neighbor, and then come to him in worship. It is amazing how God seems to put himself second. But isn’t that just like God.

2. As we ask, “Lord, what’s the best way of loving another person,” Jesus’ response is a three-word command. “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1). He adds as a warning that “as we judge so we shall be judged.” In other words, “not judging” is a corollary to the whole first commandment. Now, remember Jesus is not talking about all of the little emotional criticisms that are constantly running through our minds each day. For Jesus, “to judge” means to “pass sentence” as in a punishment. It is to act as a judge. This is serious, really. Have you heard people rather nonchalantly relegate certain groups of people to hell? That’s a judgment! When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, you hear even religious people—who should know better—proclaim that such a catastrophe was God’s punishment for the sins of the French Quarter. Of course, they said they were only using the Bible and agreeing with God. But, to my way of thinking, any human who feels certain that others or other groups “are going to hell and deserve it” are presuming to do something only God can do: Judge the human heart and know all of the circumstances of that person’s life. There is no human man or woman who can presume to do what God does. God commanded us to forgive; he forbade us to judge. Besides, Katrina hardly touched the French Quarter. It was the poor in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward who suffered terrible devastation. Katrina was not God’s punishment. It was an act of nature. Some people use God as their authority to pass judgment on people they don’t like.

3. Jesus simply said, “Look, all you have to do is sincerely seek the will of God in your lives (Mt 7:21). And so we ask ourselves, “Lord, what do you want me to do in this circumstance?” It’s a simple question, but it is rare that we can’t come up with the right answer. And if we are still unsure, there are good people able to help us explore God’s will.

Simple? Yes. Simplistic? Definitely Not

On the surface, some might think this is too simplistic. But if we truly seek to live our life by loving God and neighbor, seeking to do God’s will each day and not passing judgment on others, then we will indeed live out the whole gospel. Yes, it may sound simple; but definitely it is not simplistic.

Friar Jack's Inbox
Readers respond to Friar Jack Wintz's July E-spiration, Musing: How to Rid the World of Evil

Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for the E-spiration, “How to Rid the World of Evil.” This was one of your very best pieces! The problem of evil in a world created by an all-good God has been struggled with and discussed in every age. You have chosen two of my favorite Catholic authors to help clarify this discussion: Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen! I wish that thoughts of these inspiring men would be used in more of our current Catholic thinking. It is certainly always a good practice to look within ourselves, our culture, our ways, before we find ourselves demonizing others! Mary

Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for reminding me to “let peace begin with me.” It is something I must constantly be working on—not to judge others just because I don’t agree with them. It’s a difficult task to consider that I am one of “them”.… Just because I can see “evil” in them does not mean that I don’t have the same “evil” in me. Pat

Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for this article. What an awesome E-spiration! Being a former Quakeress, I am a pacifist, and it is so nice to read a Catholic article on peace. What you wrote about the plank in America’s eye is so true! It was a beautiful and eloquent article. God bless you. Eleanor

Dear Mary, Pat and Eleanor and the many others who responded to my July E-spiration. The majority of the 20 or so e-mail messages I received so far were generally positive like yours, but not all. Nonetheless, I appreciate the responses of all. As usual, I regret that my schedule seldom allows me to answer personally the many questions that come in. Know, however, that I continue to pray for all of your needs—as well as those of your loved ones. Friar Jack

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I am Fr. Jim Van Vurst and hope you'll enjoy
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